Ari Shavit, one of Haaretz’s more right-wing columnists, published a profile (and Hebrew) yesterday of an anonymous Israeli nuclear engineer who advocated that Israel attack Iran with the secret help of the United States. The condition for granting the interview was that Shavit not identify his source. He didn’t. I will. He was Dr. Yona Ettinger, the former head of the Israeli Atomic Energy Agency and former strategic advisor in the Israeli embassy in Washington DC. How do I know? My little, well-placed birdie told me.
Why do I expose him? Because Israel has had enough of secrecy. What Israel needs is leaders who are accountable for their beliefs. Not leaders too afraid to stand behind them. Why did Ettinger want anonymity? Undoubtedly, because the Obama administration would detest a senior Israeli nuclear official advocating Israel attack Iran with covert assistance from the U.S. Not that Obama in principle would be opposed to doing this. Not at all. Obama doesn’t want to be SEEN to be considering such a proposal for fear it would even further alienate the Arab world and stoke sympathy for Iran (which it would).
Here’s a hint at the cynicism that caused Ettinger to demand anonymity:
“This critical operation must be a multistage operation in which the ones leading it have alternatives and guarantees in the event that the objective is not achieved with the first blow. For this, sophisticated American weaponry is required. For this to happen, the United States has to give us the weaponry, instruct us not to use it and condemn us after the fact for having used it.
Oh yeah. That should work well. The world won’t see through this charade. The problem here is that Israel believes that the U.S. will adopt precisely the sorts of “blow-off” and bluff strategies that the IDF constantly uses when it knows it’s gone over international red lines. It’s one thing for Israel to lie and try to get away with it in a narrow regional context. It’s another matter for a world superpower to try to get away with the same shenanigans.
Israeli-Iran relations have had enough of spookery, skullduggery and covert ops. If Obama’s going to secretly arm Israel and Bibi’s going to send F-16s to bomb Iran, let’s do it in the light of day. Let’s face the music after it happens and explain what we did and why. If you can’t stand up to that exposure then step back into the shadows where you belong and go your merry way. Secrecy is what will kill us all. At least many Israelis and Iranians. And others caught in the backdraft.
The rest of Ettinger’s views are essentially a rehash of the pro-Israel argument which you can read at Eli Lake or Yisrael HaYom. Arguments that have long been discredited. Another interesting aspect of Ettinger’s outlook is that he embraces Yehezkel Dror, the Herman Kahn of the Israeli think-tank industry. But he thinks Dror is too liberal!
So why does Israel have to attack Iran? Because, he alleges, an Iranian bomb will embolden Hamas and Hezbollah and make them even more dangerous and terror-prone than they already are. The interesting analogy to consider here is the effect that the U.S. nuclear umbrella has on U.S. allies. Knowing we have their back should’ve turned South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and then-West Germany into regional hell-raisers. But curiously, this hasn’t happened. None of them have pressed their territorial claims against their neighbors as strongly as they might. None has resorted to extreme or outrageous behavior in pursuing national interests. The only exception here is Israel, which has pursued extreme policies and truly is a regional hell-raiser.
The difference between Israel and the other allies is that it has its own nuclear weapons thanks to France and South Africa. It doesn’t need the U.S. nuclear umbrella. I suppose it could be stated that some of Israel’s most outrageous behavior may derive at least in part from the knowledge that if it finds itself in dire straits that the U.S. will come to the rescue as it did in 1973. But gauging the effect of U.S. power on Israeli behavior is a difficult task.
Next is the most interesting claim Ettinger advances:
“It’s possible that Israel can live with a nuclear Iran. In principle, it is possible. But can Israel exist with a number of nuclear superpowers in the Middle East? Can we exist within a multipolar nuclear system? I don’t think so. When I think about this scenario, I have a hard time sleeping at night.”
If you strip this argument down to its elemental level it is an argument in favor of Israeli regional hegemony, a strategic approach I’ve discussed here a number of times. This is the view that Israel can only survive in a Middle East in which it reigns supreme and unthreatened. While one may understand how appealing this idea would be to policymakers in Tel Aviv, it’s a throwback to an earlier era. Not even at the height of U.S. global power did we ever enjoy such military supremacy. Israel’s senior strategic thinkers want a world that perhaps never was and certainly can never be.
In Ettinger’s view, Israel must attack Iran less because it is a physical threat than because Iran is the uppity Muslim nation to whom a lesson must be taught:
“A successful strike would do much to shore up Israel’s strategic situation in an unstable Middle East.
If Israel doesn’t do it, then the natives of the region will grow restless and challenges to Israeli dominance will abound. This portends a nightmare world in which Israel is not predominant, but only one among many.
If the Arab Spring has taught us anything (and it hasn’t taught the Israelis much that is positive), it is that there is a rising tide of activism and popularism sweeping this region. This is not a wave that can be resisted in the long run. Israel will either learn to co-exist and become a part of the region; or it will collapse like the former Soviet Union did under the weight of illusions and unreality at the heart of Israeli strategic thinking.
This means that the Middle East already is a multi-polar world. A world in which Israel can no longer be a sole nuclear power, in which Israel can no longer dominate by virtue of military might. The U.S. long ago learned to live in such a world as did the former Soviet Union. There is no reason Israel can’t as well. But it certainly can’t do this under the spell of such misguided notions as Ettinger’s.
Here is the nuclear engineer’s argument on behalf of covert U.S. support:
…We have a supreme obligation to ensure that the chances of success are maximal and the chances of failure are minimal. In my opinion, to do this we need secret assistance from the Americans. Even if it’s a blue-and-white operation, we need to ensure that red-white-and-blue capabilities will be integrated in it. Just as the Americans have assisted in the past with all sorts of operations with various allies without publicly admitting it, the same thing will have to happen here. The Israeli attack must be backed up by quiet American support and American high-tech that will ensure its success.”
Ettinger doesn’t even deal with the issue of whether Israel can gain such tacit support. He presumes that because Obama won’t attack Iran himself that he would have to agree to let Israel do the job with secret American help. This too is another mark of Israeli hubris, which posits that the world must do what it wants it to.
Here is why he imagines Obama will do his bidding:
President Obama…understands that if Iran goes nuclear, he will bear the responsibility for it. On his watch the Middle East will go nuclear and the international regime limiting the proliferation of nuclear weapons will collapse.
Why, in heavens name, would a nuclear Iran mean the collapse of the non-proliferation regime? It’s as if Ettinger is oblivious to the host of nations with nuclear weapons, including some like North Korea and Pakistan who are truly unsavory. Did their entry into the nuclear camp cause the collapse of NPT? No. Nor will Iran should it go nuclear.
To this delusional thinking we must add another element that Ettinger shares with Dror. As the “price” for allowing an Israeli attack on Iran, Israel would reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians. Nice. All of a sudden, Bibi Netanyahu, who has refused to negotiate in any serious way with the Palestinians will get religion (so to speak), betray his ultranationist settler allies, and reach an agreement that has eluded other Israeli prime ministers for decades. This is beyond the improbable. It enters the realm of deliberate delusion.
In one sense, Ettinger is Israel’s Dr. Strangelove. The wild-eyed scientific genius leading his country to nuclear confrontation. But the difference is that the film character was a buffoon. Ettinger is no fool. He represents the best and brightest of Israel’s ruling élite. And that’s all the more the tragedy.
Fortunately though, there are other voices that are heard. The difference is that these voices no longer have the ear or confidence of those who will be deciding on an Israeli attack. But they are a formidable lot nonetheless. Former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy is one of them. I’ve written already about former IDF intelligence chief Aharon Farkash’s statements opposing an attack now. Now, Aharon Yadlin, the immediate past Aman director has come out with a warning:
Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Yadlin…hinted in a Channel 1 interview that an attack is imminent. Speaking in a somewhat less vehement idiom, Yadlin sounded as though he had doubts about the urgency of launching a unilateral strike against Tehran’s program…
Why should we listen or care what they say?
Former IDF intelligence officers continue to have access to security system briefings, even though they are not brought into the actual planning process of a secret military operation. No less importantly, they know how to analyze disclosed, public data − and developments of the past weeks teaches them that the likelihood of an Israeli decision in favor of an attack is now higher than it has been previously.
Add to this, the gagged story recounting IDF chief’s Benny Gantz’s opposition to an attack. A follow-up Yediot story of which I featured a screenshot here, displayed the images of the current chiefs of the Mossad, Shin Bet, Aman and air force, all of whom are united in their opposition.
This, however, may not be enough if Bibi Netanyahu is intent on carrying the day and making war.
“How do I know? My little, well-placed birdie told me”? Ari Shavit wrote that the person was the head of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission for 5 years. There were 3 such people, only one is alive, Yona Ettinger, so…?
Richard Silverstein says
Holy crap, I told you it was Ettinger, then you confirmed it using your amazing powers of deduction! Yet neither my source nor I deserve any credit. If you’re so smart why didn’t you write this post before me, since it was so easy for you to figure out it was Ettinger?
I have no blog, but I wrote an article about this man yesterday on Hebrew Wikipedia. I don’t know when you uploaded your post yesterday, but I wasn’t aware of it when I wrote it.
Well, get a blog! Everybody’s doing it.
Richard Silverstein says
Since Shavit wrote that there was no Wikipedia article for Ettinger I think it’s great if you write one. I’d be grateful if you’d add to it that my source identified him as the interviewee for Shavit’s article along with a link to my post.
You’re right, there wasn’t an article about him in Wikipedia when Shavit’s article was published, but I decided to write one afterwards. I think I’ll expand the article (which is quite short as for now – search for “יונה אטינגר” in Hebrew Wikipeida) using Shavit’s article, relying on your post as the source of identification (I can’t rely on my identification, it’s not a proper source).
Richard Silverstein says
Thanks for that. I did read your article. It’s a start. I’m grateful if you include a reference or link to my post. There is also a profile by Josh Breiner of Ettinger you can link to. Let me know if you need the link.
Netanyahu will say anything he wants as Israel implodes. If he wants a public suicide, then he should attack Iran.
Granted, Israel will never attack Iran directly. That is like saying Peru will take on Brazil.
Bob Mann says
Also of note:
Iran TV airs confessions in murder of scientists
The broadcast said Jamali Fashi and Arash Kheradkish got the highest grades during training in Tel Aviv and were chosen to lead the operations.
Maziar Ebrahimi, another suspect, said there were three groups involved in the bombings: Two on a motorbike, a car driving in front to slow the target car and a third support team waiting nearby to help if necessary.
“The assassination control room was in Tel Aviv, but it was receiving the orders from Washington and London,” the TV report said.
This confirms your earlier suspicions.
What would an Israeli strike at Iran look like? And what would the Iran counter-strike look like? Anybody have thoughts or references on this?
Richard Silverstein says
I’ve written a few blog posts about this based on U.S. & Israeli think tank scenarios:
The likelihood of that happening aside, this statement amounts to a straight admission that the lack of such an agreement is purely deliberate on part of the Israelis. No one in their right mind, not even Bibi, is claiming the Iranian nuclear project, however real or imagined, was all that factually stood in the way of peace with the Palestinians. By linking these unrelated issues Ettinger is suggesting a simple exchange of favours: you Americans let us attack Iran and we’ll do you the favour of making peace with the Palestinians. Naturally the latter, native savages that they are, have no say in the matter, but I wonder if it has crossed Ettinger’s mind that the local conflict hurts Israel more than it does America.